3 points on the futurization of swaps

Today, the CFTC is hosting a Roundtable on the “Futurization of Swaps.” More than 30 people from various parts of the industry are speaking. I’m on the first panel. Here are 3 points I’ll be making:

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Tax Reform & Derivatives

Representative Dave Camp, Republican Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has released a discussion draft on new rules for the taxation of derivatives. The press release is here. Detail material is found here.

In the draft, derivatives used for hedging are excluded. The criteria proposed here for determining whether a derivative is used for hedging in tax accounting are similar to the criteria already applied in financial accounting. However, a large fraction of derivatives held by non-financial companies are not accounted for using hedge accounting. So, it seems to me that this proposal would probably affect the tax treatment of those holdings.

It will be interesting to see how this discussion unfolds.

Crude oil basis risk is receding… for now.

Companies that hedge oil prices have been forced to reevaluate their strategies over the last couple of years. Many companies have used the NYMEX WTI contract, one of the oldest energy futures contracts and still one of the most liquid. The WTI contract is for oil delivered into Cushing, Oklahoma, but since crude oil is a global commodity and transportation links have historically been good, fluctuations in the WTI price have been a reasonable benchmark for global supply and demand.

However, in the last few years, the differential between WTI and Brent, the other leading global benchmark, have exploded and been very volatile. Suddenly, geography made a great deal of difference. Technology has opened up new production in North America, first from the Canadian oil sands and more recently from US tight oil fields. A bottleneck in the capacity of pipelines for shipping production out of Oklahoma down to the US Gulf Coast meant that the central US experienced a glut of supply, disconnecting the regional price from the global one.

Historical Spreads 2

This has meant that fluctuations in NYMEX’s WTI futures price reflected local variations in demand and supply that did not necessarily track variations in global supply and demand and global crude price. Hedgers not located in the central US faced increasing basis risk in using the WTI contract. Some switched to using the ICE Brent contract instead. Others adjusted their hedge ratios. These events have been a key feature of the recent marketing duels between NYMEX and ICE over which contract is best.

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Prop Trading at JP Morgan

JPMorgan’s management released its Task Force Report (Report) on the trading losses at its Chief Investment Office (CIO). It’s very clearly written tick-tock and provides a good account of how various controls broke down. Taking for granted the task assigned to the traders running the CIO’s Synthetic Credit Portfolio, the report outlines where things went wrong.

As an accident of timing, the losses were first disclosed in the midst of a public debate about the Volcker Rule’s prohibition on proprietary trading at banks. So, for the public, the case became a test of whether the proposed regulations implementing the Volcker Rule had any teeth: would they prohibit the trades being done at JPMorgan’s CIO once they came into force? Management has always contended that the Synthetic Credit Portfolio was run to hedge the bank’s natural long position in credit risk, and that it was not proprietary trading and would not be prohibited under the Volcker Rule. That contention is repeated summarily in the Report when it gives an introductory overview of the Portfolio’s origin and operation. But, the contention is never actually substantiated: indeed, the Report does not purport to address the prop trading question directly.

There is much in the Report that would lead a reader to doubt management’s contention and to conclude instead that the Synthetic Credit Portfolio was a classic example of prop trading.

A key forensic test for distinguishing prop trading from hedging is the compensation criteria. A hedger’s success is not measured by his or her own profit and loss on the hedge trades. Instead, a hedger’s success is measured by how well his or her own profits and losses track and set off the losses and profits on the assets being hedged. The metrics for performance on hedging should incentivize minimizing net risk. The metrics should measure net risk reduction. When the desk reports big profits — after netting out the matched positions — that’s a bad sign, not a good one. The JPMorgan Report strongly suggests that the traders on the Synthetic Credit Portfolio expected to be rewarded on their own profit and loss, not on how successfully they hedged the bank’s natural long position. That compensation system fits prop trading, not hedging.

The Report does briefly consider the wisdom of the compensation scheme, but not from the perspective of the Volcker Rule and identifying prohibited activities. Instead, the Task Force was just concerned with the question of whether the profit and loss criterion was overvalued to the exclusion of other criteria management imposed on the unit.

So, it looks as if JPMorgan’s CIO, and its Synthetic Credit Portfolio provide a useful test case for the Volcker Rule going forward. The original regulations proposed for implementing the Rule did include an assessment of compensation criteria. Whether that will continue in a final rule is yet to be seen. And then comes the question of enforcement.



Futurization wheat and chaff


Finally, a journalist has located a real cost of futurization, as opposed to the many imagined ones.


Is wholesale power trading as profitable a line of business as they say?

EDF Trading

Gregory Meyer, in today’s Financial Times, reports that banks are scaling back their trading in U.S. wholesale electric power markets. In his companion article, he quotes me saying that

The banks had the balance sheet, but the reality was it was the taxpayers that were giving them the balance sheet. It’s not clear we want the taxpayer subsidising proprietary trading in electricity or even hedging in electricity.

I am very circumspect about whether power trading operations are as profitable as they are often advertised to be. Here’s one reason why.

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With a hedge, could Conoco have it all?

conoco logo

Liam Denning’s Heard on the Street column in this morning’s Wall Street Journal is reliably hard-nosed about budget trade-offs:

Investors want it all—but they should be careful about companies that promise it.

ConocoPhillips is a case in point. … E&P stocks tend to compete on growth, whereas the integrated majors are prized for how much cash they return to shareholders. Conoco offers both. It targets annual production growth of between 3% and 5% a year out to 2016. And it offers a dividend yield of 4.6%, around double the average for its peers.

What’s not to like about that?

…Conoco’s near-term strategy implicitly relies on high oil prices, not merely to provide operating cash flows but also to attract high prices for disposals. The danger is not that Conoco suddenly can’t pay its dividend; indeed, it has prioritized it. Rather, it is that weaker prices or unexpected costs would upset the cash-flow math and force investors to dial back their enhanced expectations–and Conoco’s valuation with them.

Conoco’s exposure to oil prices is a matter of choice, not circumstances. The company does practically no hedging. The company’s stated “policy is to remain exposed to the market price of commodities.” In fact, the company takes this curious commitment so far that “we use swap contracts to convert fixed-price sales contracts which are often requested by natural gas and refined product customers, to floating market prices.”[1]

Conoco has good company as a non-hedger. We’ve written before about the notable fact that ExxonMobil refuses to hedge. But even among smaller E&P firms, roughly 50% of the firms report no hedges at all in any given year.[2]

Perhaps Conoco can afford to remain exposed. Its balance sheet is in very good shape so that it has unused debt capacity which could cover some shortfall. Nevertheless, if exposure to commodity prices were truly a threat to Conoco’s twin goals of investing for growth and paying a reliable dividend, the company could do something about that. But to do so would require giving up its third goal of being fully exposed to oil prices.

Two out of three ain’t bad.

[1] ConocoPhillips Form 10-K for FY2011, p. 74.

[2] Haushalter, G. David, 2000, Financing Policy, Basis Risk and Corporate Hedging: Evidence from Oil and Gas Producers, Journal of Finance 55, 107-152.

Congressional Intent & Futurization

The Capital Markets subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing yesterday on the derivatives portion of the Dodd-Frank Act — Title VII. The question of the futurization of swaps captured a good bit of attention.

House Hearing

Representative Bachus, who chairs the full Committee, said (at 14:04 in the video),

If all derivatives were supposed to be traded on an exchange, then they would all be futures. [Swaps] are differeent from exchange listed products, and imposing the listed futures or equity market model on [swaps] is not the mandate of Title VII.

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Reading the Term Structure

Natural gas prices have been rising recently. But I always like to look at the whole term structure of futures prices to get a better sense of what is really going on. My colleagues at CRA, Billy Muttiah and James Dunning, prepared this chart which overlays snapshots of the term structure at the start of the last several months. It tells a simple story.

Natural Gas Futures Prices - 12-05-2012

What’s going on is mostly a story about the long-run. Only a small amount of recent spot price changes are due to short-run factors and changes in the spot vs. futures price. Prices at all maturities have been going up. And the shifts are roughly parallel throughout the term structure.

A quick look like this doesn’t clarify whether it is long-run demand shocks, long-run supply shocks or any number of other combination of factors. But it does focus attention in the right place.

How Futures Can Steal Market Share from Customized Swaps


Many people underestimate the threat that futures markets pose for the OTC swaps industry because they have been suckered into thinking of swaps as carefully custom tailored instruments. It’s true that a small fraction of the OTC swaps market cannot be replicated in the futures marketplace. And it is good that the Dodd-Frank Act preserved a space for customized swaps. But the vast majority of swaps are not custom tailored, or the custom tailoring is so inconsequential that it will be an easy matter for the futures market to serve the same purpose.

Even when the swap does contain some important element of customization, that is usually not the whole story. Many customized swaps can be broken up into 2 pieces: (i) a basic, plain vanilla swap, plus (ii) a small bit of customization that adapts the plain vanilla swap around the edges. The futures market can substitute for the plain vanilla swap, and then the OTC swap market can provide the customization around the edges.

It’s like buying a suit ready-to-wear, but having the tailor adjust the hems or waistline a little bit. So long as the adjustments are small, its an economic alternative to true customization.

An illustration of how a custom swap can be broken up into two pieces appears in an article by Sean Owen, Director of Fixed Income Research and Consulting at Woodbine Associates, published in a recent special issue of the Review of Futures Markets. He breaks up an irregularly amortizing 10-year interest rate swap into (i) a 7-year bullet interest rate swap, and (ii) a customized swap that produces the irregular amortization relative to the 7-year bullet. (H/T to CFTC Commissioner Scott O’Malia for highlighting the article)